Mindfulness and Resilience in Challenging Times

The Awake Network and Mindful.org have collaborated to provide a free resource for healthcare professionals in the form of The Mindful Healthcare Speaker Series.  Jon Kabat-Zinn speaking on Mindfulness and Resilience in Challenging Times was the first in the series of six speakers.   While Jon is not an MD, he has a PhD in Medicine and focuses on mindfulness in medication, healthcare and society.

Jon and host, Dr. Reena Kotecha, spoke of the enormity of the challenges facing everyone with the advent of the Coronavirus and especially the frontline healthcare professionals who, in many instances, lack adequate resources and training to deal with the magnitude of this pandemic.  They spoke of the trauma experienced by these healthcare professionals who are witnessing the suffering and death of so many people.  Reena spoke of one frontline female doctor who had to move out of home to live in a hotel for three months to protect her mother who was suffering from cancer. 

A truly disturbing event was the suicide death of Dr. Lorna M. Breen, an emergency center doctor, who continually witnessed the very worst of the impact of the Coronavirus on people, including people dying at the hospital before they could be removed from the ambulance.   Her heroic efforts to save people through her frontline medical work contributed to her own death.  Jon reiterated that mindfulness does not lessen the enormity of the physical and mental health impact of the pandemic on the lives of healthcare professionals but emphasised that mindfulness acts as a ballast to provide stability in the face of the turbulent winds created by the pandemic.

Mindfulness as ballast for stability

Jon referred to the 25 years of quality scientific research that showed the benefits of mindfulness, extending to positively altering the structure of the brain, increasing functional connectivity (e.g. of the mind-body connection) and enhancing neuroplasticity.   Neuroscientist Richard Davidson co-authored a book, Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body, and demonstrated the powerful effect mindfulness had on building resilience.

Jon spoke of “full catastrophe living” and emphasised that it is truly human to experience fear, anxiety and grief.  He argued that mental health is enhanced by feeling and accepting everything we experience, rather than denying its existence or intensity.  He stated that no matter how emotionally rending our circumstances are we can find refuge in mindfulness, by being “in the present moment, moment by moment”.  In this way, we are better able to recover from the “trauma” of the present reality and to do so without total depletion of ourselves.   

Mindfulness as awareness

Jon maintained that “we are not our narrative” – we are not our negative self-talk that diminishes us and depletes our energy in the face of life challenges.  He argues that our life is “one seamless whole” – our mind, body, thoughts and emotions.  In his view, our breath serves as the integrating factor and energy force.  Awareness of our breath in the present moment enables us “to get out of the wind” and “to recalibrate, recover and respond instead of reacting”.  To reinforce this message, he provided a guided meditation during his presentation focused on the breath for about ten minutes (at the 30-minute mark).

Jon maintained that awareness of our breath can enable us to be fully awake to what is going on inside us and to be more deeply connected to others.  He argued that we don’t have to achieve a particular goal – to become more or better – in his view, “we are already okay”.  In these challenging times, what is needed to help ourselves and others we interact with is to be authentically present, without a “mask” (metaphorically speaking), but with openness and vulnerability. 

Reflection

Jon highlighted the importance of trusting our “human creativity” when confronted with the need to help people who are stressed out by the pandemic.  As we grow in mindfulness through mindful breathing, we not only build our resilience in managing our personal challenges but also “modulate the tendency to put self ahead of everyone else” – we can diminish our self-absorption and self-doubt.  He maintained that awareness of our breathing reinforces our ecological connectedness.  

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Image by Jill Wellington from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Living with Purpose

Ginny Whitelaw introduced her Lead with Purpose online training program In an interview with David Riordan of Integral Life.  Basically, the program is about living with purpose because it is not only about leading in an organisational setting but extends to every area of our life, including family and community.  During the interview, Ginny explains in detail what the course covers, the practices employed, and the perspective offered.  She particularly emphasises the non-religious orientation of the course even though it draws on Zen philosophy and is part of the many leadership development programs available through the Institute for Zen Leadership.  Ginny maintains that unlike many leadership programs that are highly conceptual in nature, the Lead with Purpose program is very much about mind-body connection – it highlights the need to achieve this integration of mind and body if a leader is to achieve realisation of their ideas and purpose.  Integral Life offers other enlightening interviews in their series of podcasts, as well as courses.

The influences behind the Lead with Purpose Course

Ginny brings to the course her doctoral studies in biophysics, a sound understanding of recent neuroscience research, training in and practice of Zen philosophy, training in martial arts (Aikido black belt, level 5 achieved as well as training others) and her experience as a senior manger in NASA (coordinating groups that support the International Space Station).  So, her training covers mind and body and their intimate connection – and she incorporates this uniquely shaped perspective in the training course.

To Ginny, the Zen approach is about direct experience of the mind-body connection and aims to deepen and enrich this sense of connection.  This is achieved in part through physical practices focused on the breath and moving focus away from analysis and obsession with using the brain to work things out.   The practices are designed to centre and stabilise the energy of the body and make it available as a rich resource to pursue our life purpose.

These practices heighten our intuition and sensitivity to the body’s signals and develop our insight into our fundamental purpose in life and the pathway to pursue it.  Ginny points out that our individual purpose is what differentiates each of us and our connection within and with others enables us to manifest that unique purpose in our lives, whatever arena we are operating in.   She maintains that this centredness enables us to influence others effectively whether in a meeting, a public presentation, in our family relationships or when engaging with the wider community.

Some of the modern-day issues addressed in Lead with Purpose

In today’s fast paced world with ever increasing demands and rapid change on every front, we often express frustration in three main areas – (1) lack of time, (2) lack of energy and (3) inability to translate ideas into action.

  1. Ginny explains in the interview that the course changes our relationship to time so that we are not racing against time but are focused on the now and being fully engaged with our situation.  She points out that participants in the course develop a different perspective on time and no longer see time as something separate but experience time through their continuous, personal evolution.
  2. Ginny addresses the lack of energy by maintaining that often we are unproductive because we get distracted from our purpose and energy gets “siphoned off’ into other pursuits.  The Lead with Purpose course through its centredness in the body builds energy and enables real resonance to be achieved by a person who is leading.  She explains that “as the body relaxes, energy flows”.  Ginny describes four basic “energy patterns” that exist in our nervous system and that are foundational to her approach in the course.  She maintains that we each prefer a particular pattern which reflects our personality (and influencing style) but we need to develop the capacity to use the “right energy at the right time” – a specific focus of the course.  As we increase our internal connectedness between body and mind, we can use our heightened energy to influence externally – to manifest our dreams and purpose.
  3. Often our attempts to translate our ideas into action are thwarted by our internal barriers (such as negative self-talk) as well as external barriers related to organisational, personal or community readiness to change.  The Lead with Purpose course creates a heightened sensitivity to what is possible, to the opportunities that open up and to a way forward in pursuit of our purpose.

Ginny explains that through the program, participants create an “intuitive connection’ with the situation in which they lead and an “empathetic connection” with their followers, collaborators or co-creators.

Clare Bowditch – a journey into leading with purpose

Clare Bowditch – singer, songwriter, and actor – is a person of exceptional talent in many arenas. She is the winner of an Aria Award as the best female vocalist and was nominated for a Logie for her acting role in the TV series, Offspring. She has won many awards, toured with famous singers like Leonard Cohen, and developed as a radio presenter and entrepreneur.  She recently released her memoir, Your Own Kind of Girl: The stories we tell ourselves and what happens when we believe them. The memoir recounts an extended personal journey to find her purpose and pursue it with her total focus and centred energy.

Clare suffered numerous dark days through depression, catalysed by childhood trauma through the death of her young sister and adverse childhood experiences through her abusive treatment at school and elsewhere because she was considered “fat”.  She was filled with self-doubts about her talent, fears about future events and a sense of guilt over the death of her sister and her failure to do more to save her (a totally irrational belief given that her older sister died at the age of seven from a rare and incurable disease).

Clare describes in graphic detail the self-talk that debilitated her for much of her early life and clouded her view of her life purpose.  The memoir is also a story of courage, resilience and persistence in the pursuit of her life purpose. Clare adopted multiple approaches to acknowledge her true purpose, accept it and pursue it with a singular, focused energy.  Her strategies included:

  • Drawing on the support of her family and friends (including a “healing friend”)
  • Engaging in meditation (however imperfect)
  • Listening to her body and the signals it was conveying about her fears, her energy, her passion and her happiness
  • Naming negative self-talk as “Frank” and developing a way to shut Frank up and ignore “his” messages (she called it FOF)
  • Developing a personalised approach to relaxing herself (FAFL – Face, Accept, Float and Let time pass).

Clare had to offload the “shoulds” that beset her throughout her life to enable her to identify her differentiation as a singer/songwriter in terms of speaking with her real voice – becoming her “resonant self”, reflecting her true feelings and beliefs.

Reflection

Ginny’s discussion of her course, Lead with Purpose, helps us to realise the blockages that prevent us from identifying, accepting and pursuing our life purpose.  She provides a pathway forward built on an intensive mind-body connection that removes these blocks to insight and energy.  Clare Bowditch provides a model of the courage, resilience and persistence required to truly align our energies with our purpose.  As we grow in mindfulness through physical practices, meditation and reconnection, we can develop a clarity and resonance that enables us to create a real difference in our world.

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Image by John Hain from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

What Do You Do if Mindfulness Does Not Reduce Your Symptoms of Anxiety or Depression?

I was approached recently by a young man who was experiencing severe anxiety.  He was able to cope well with his work but had all kinds of difficulties coping at home, including endless self-doubts, negative self-stories and an inability to relax or concentrate.  He indicated that he had “tried everything’ – meditation, mindfulness practices and reflection. 

He found, for example, that “reflection” only resulted in his entertaining negative thoughts about himself and re-visiting his destructive self-stories.  So, reflection for him resulted in a downward spiral rather than a release from self-deprecation.

What does “tried everything” mean?

The first consideration is how did he approach these attempts to develop mindfulness and reduce his symptoms?  Given the young man’s level of agitation, it was likely that his efforts were somewhat frantic and unfocussed.  One could question whether he engaged in a sustained meditation practice in a focused way, e.g. working on his self-stories with the aid of a meditation teacher or meditation group.

One of the issues is that there are so many different forms of meditation that it is tempting to “try them all” and flit from one form to another, without addressing your specific needs or the causal factors of your depression or anxiety.  This is where a professional psychologist or dedicated professional group could help.  Organisations like Beyond Blue and the Black Dog Institute can help by providing knowledge, resources, group support, access to programs and advice in identifying a suitable medical practitioner, psychologist or psychiatrist.  Other specialist carer support groups can assist people who are experiencing anxiety or depression as a result of caring for someone who has a long-term need for care and support.

The Mental Health Care Plan

You may need medication and/or the aid of an allied health professional to overcome depression and/or anxiety. In Australia, there is a specialist form of help that can be accessed through your local medical practitioner, the Mental Health Care Plan.   You explain your symptoms and needs to a doctor who develops a mental health treatment plan with you.  This may include medication, referral to an allied health professional such as a psychologist and/or other forms of activity designed to address your specific mental health condition.  Medicare will provide rebates for visits to an authorised health care professional where the visits have been the subject of referral by a medical practitioner as part of a Mental Health Care Plan.  The number of visits covered by Medicare rebate is 10 (subject to a confirming review by the doctor after the first six visits).

Advancing our understanding of the causes of depression and anxiety

Johann Hari, in his book Lost Connections, highlights recent research undertaken worldwide that shows that anti-depression medication can be effective in the short term to reduce symptoms but that, in the medium to long term, it typically has to be increased and can reduce in effectiveness over time.  In his book, Johann focuses on the social factors contributing to the global rise in depression and anxiety and proposes solutions that support rather than replace medication treatments, although some people are able to give up their medication after a period of successful use of one or more of these alternative approaches.

Johann identifies seven social factors that contribute to the rise in depression and anxiety, all relating to a loss of connection.  He describes them as “disconnection from”:

Johann acknowledges the research that shows that in some instances a person experiences depression and/or anxiety because of their genes or a brain change brought on by some life experience (pp. 143-155).

Reconnection: alternative anti-depressant treatments

Johann describes several ways to reconnect to overcome depression and anxiety.  These include reconnecting with others, with meaningful work, with nature and/or meaningful values. He also includes chapters on finding “sympathetic joy” while overcoming self-obsession (Chapter 20), and a compelling chapter on acknowledging and overcoming childhood trauma (Chapter 21).

What I found particularly intriguing, as well as very practical, was a chapter on “social prescribing” (Chapter 17).  In this chapter, Johann highlights the work of the Bromley-by-Bow Center which combines a medication approach (where deemed necessary) with hundreds of social programs.  This medical centre is very different to most doctor’s clinics that you would normally visit, both in terms of the orientation of the medical practitioner and the physical environment.  The emphasis is on listening, not medication prescription, and treatment is strongly oriented to “reconnection” strategies such as a walking group, employment skills group, start-up support to establish your own business and a casual group focused on “Create Your Future”.

What further intrigued me was the effectiveness of one project described by Johann through the experience of Lisa, who was experiencing severe depression.  The project was the brainchild of Dr. Sam Everington who was concerned about the over-reliance on anti-depression medication.  Basically, he assigned some of his patients to a community project focused on beautifying a strip of bushland that had become overgrown and neglected but was a popular walk-through. 

The group of people experiencing depression, who had difficulty interacting with anyone and typically kept to themselves, eventually started having conversations, sharing their life histories and their personal mental health challenges as well as plans to beautify the bushland strip.  They had to learn about the seasons, plants and their nutrition needs and how to plant and cultivate different kinds of plants.  They took pride in their project and started to gain confidence and competence.  A moving story was that of a person who had initially presented as very angry and aggressive who went out of his way to help two people who experienced learning difficulties.  Eventually, the members of the group decided to do a Certificate in Horticulture.

Johann pointed out that this creative project addressed two major reconnection needs – reconnection with others and with nature.  It can also be seen that each of these reconnections reinforces the other.

As we grow in mindfulness, we can be open to new ways of dealing with depression and anxiety.  We can learn to reconnect with key elements in our life that induce mentally healthy living, including mindful connection to others, spending time in nature, being grateful for what we have (rather than suffer “status anxiety”) and being willing to show compassion towards others.

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Image by Henning Westerkamp from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.